Ancient Greece was the cradle of Western civilization. The Greeks gave the world the epic poetry of Homer, the philosophy of Plato And Socratesand majestic columned temples where they offered sacrifices to a pantheon of jealous gods.
But what was daily life like in ancient Greece? Michael Lovano, a history teacher at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin and author of The World of Ancient Greece: An Encyclopedia of Daily Lifesaid it looked remarkably like ours.
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Here are nine everyday objects from ancient Greece that help connect you to people living almost 3,000 years ago.
1. Protective statues
The house was the center of ancient Greek life and its protection and that of its inhabitants required daily offerings and prayers to the gods. In addition to a small family altar in the courtyard, the ancient Greeks placed special objects at the entrance to the house to “protect it from evil spirits or dangerous energies,” says Lovano.
One of these objects was called a herm, a small statue of Hermes (photo at top), the god of travel. As they left the house, family members would pray to Hermes for protection during their journey – even if it was just a short trip to the market – and offer a prayer of gratitude for being returned home safe and sound.
Another popular talisman was a three-faced statue of Hecate (above), the goddess of witchcraft, whom the ancient Greeks placed outside their doors to deflect “evil eye energies” from outside. Smaller wooden protective figurines of Hecate could be carried at home or while traveling.
2. Wine mixing bowl: Kratère
The English word “crater” comes from a type of ancient Greek “punch bowl” called crater. The crater was the centerpiece of the symposiuman ancient Greek festival filled with wine, women and songs.
The ancient Greeks believed that drinking undiluted wine was “vulgar» and leads to drunkenness. That’s where the krater came in. Craters were wide-rimmed ceramic or bronze bowls in which wine was mixed with water and then ladled to the symposium guests.
The conference took place an important role in Athenian democracy, because they were places where citizens could gather informally to share ideas and engage in philosophical discussions. Many of Plato’s dialogues were held at a conference.
Lovano says every Greek household would have a crater for family gatherings and celebrations. The humbler ones were made of unadorned red ceramic, while the wealthier families had craters with elaborate depictions of rejoicing gods.
3. Ceramic storage vessels: amphorae and pithoi
Ancient Greek and Roman shipwrecks have been recovered with thousands of ceramic storage containers on board. Ceramic vessels were used in almost every aspect of ancient Greek life, for drinking, mixing, serving and transport, but especially for storing valuable foods like grains, milk, olive oil and wine .
The most common everyday ceramic storage container was the amphora, a container with two handles that also served as a volume measure. At the market, the ancient Greeks bought an amphora of honey or two amphorae of wine.
Back home, families used much larger containers called pithoi for long-term storage of essential commodities like barley and olive oil. “They ate grains every day and used olive oil for everything,” says Lovano. “They washed their hair with olive oil, cleansed their bodies with it, made soap, cooked with it, and used it as fuel for oil lamps.”
A pithos was large enough to fit one or two people inside and was sometimes partially buried in an interior room to keep the contents cool so they were less likely to spoil.
4. Clothing: Peplos and Chiton
In ancient Greek art and sculpture, nudity was the norm, but in everyday life, people definitely wore clothes. All ancient Greek clothing was variations on the same theme: a large piece of fabric – usually wool, but sometimes linen or cotton – that was layered, folded or pinned to achieve a comfortable, fashionable shape .
“Most Greeks wore a chiton or what we would call a tunic,” says Lovano. “It’s basically a long T-shirt that goes down to mid-thigh, and they tie it around their waist with some sort of string or rope.” The chiton could serve as an undergarment for additional layers of clothing, such as a cape called himation-or be worn alone.
The women wore long tunics, but also a kind of dress that reached the ankles, called peplum. A peplos was made from two pieces of fabric tied or pinned together at the shoulders. Lovano says archaeologists regularly find these clasps, which range from simple bronze brooches to jewelry-quality pieces in silver and gold.
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Chariot racing were the most anticipated and celebrated events in the ancient Greek calendar. Held during seasonal festivals honoring the gods and during the ancient Olympic Games, chariot races were dangerous, high-speed competitions held on open-air racing tracks called hippodromes.
Each two-wheeled chariot was pulled by a team of four horses, and up to 10 tanks at a time competed for glory, crashing into each other as they took hairpin turns.
Tanks arrived in Greece from the ancient Near East via Egypt and Cyprus, and they were made from wood reinforced with bronze veneer. The ancient Greeks used chariots primarily for racing, not war.
6. The Greek shield: Aspis
If you were a hoplite soldier in the Greek army, your essential everyday weapon was a simple wooden shield called aspis. This round shield was invented in the 8th century BC and spread like wildfire across the Mediterranean thanks to a revolutionary innovation: the leather back of the shield had two handles, one to secure the elbow and a second to the hand.
Ancient Greek shields weren’t made entirely of metal like “old trash can lids,” Lovano explains. The aspis drew its strength from a wooden core which was reinforced with metal plates like bronze or iron. Some shields were inlaid with Gorgon heads and other scenes to intimidate the enemy.
7. In the Temple: The Tripod
Today we think of tripods as convenient devices for holding a camera, but in ancient Greece, tripods played a very different and sacred role. The ancient Greeks believed that their destiny was firmly in the hands of the gods, who needed to be pleased and appeased through offerings and sacrifices in their temples.
“The most important object inside a Greek temple was a bronze or iron tripod” says Lovano. “The priest or priestess placed a cauldron on the tripod, lit a fire underneath, and then you placed your ritual offerings in the cauldron – perhaps grains, animal flesh, ‘oil or wine.’
Most tripods were everyday ritual objects, but the most famous tripod was at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the Oracle of Delphi. Here the tripod formed a high pedestal on which the virgin priestess sat and interpreted the divine messages of Apollo.
8. The ossicles
The ancient Greeks enjoyed sports, racing, and competitive games of all types, including board games and ball games, Lovano says, but one of the most popular Greek pastimes for young and old was a game called knucklebones Or astragalus.
“The Greeks started by using real knucklebones from animals they sacrificed, but later they played with artificial bones made from terracotta, bronze, ivory and even gold and silver,” says Lozano .
The simplest versions of knucklebones were played by children. One was similar to jax, in which the player threw five bones into the air and saw how many he could catch on the back of his hand. In another version, children tried to place as many bones into a small vase or hole in the ground.
Greek women used bones as a means of divination, especially young, single women looking for love. A throw where all five bones landed in different positions was particularly auspicious and was called “Aphrodite’s throw.” Men used knucklebones to play. Each side of the knucklebone had a numerical value like that of dice, but unlike dice, the number facing down was the one that counted.